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The revival of Arkansas basketball starts with Bobby Portis

The face of Arkansas basketball is a 6'11 sophomore forward who grew up dreaming of playing for the Razorbacks.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The moment Bobby Portis put on the headband might have been the moment that changed the trajectory of Arkansas basketball.

During the last two years, the headband has become the trademark for the Razorbacks forward. Arkansas has even held a Bobby Portis Headband Night earlier this season. Portis' headband, of course, was present as the sophomore had 29 points and 11 rebounds in an 80-72 win over Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinal Friday.

The performance was what Portis had shown all season, vicious dunks and overpowering play. Portis earned SEC Player of the Year honors in part by averaging 17.8 points per game. He scored 18 in the first half against Tennessee. On one possession early in the first half, Portis pressured a Tennessee inbounder, moved to pressure the ballhandler in the corner, forced a turnover, scored on a layup and got fouled along the way.

Portis said he was playing angry because he'd heard someone said he didn't deserve SEC Player of the Year. Portis wouldn't say where he heard that, but maybe it's for the best. Tabbing Portis as the best in the SEC was an easy decision. The 6'10 forward led Arkansas to its best season since the Nolan Richardson era.

What's important is that Portis channeled that slighted feeling into something positive. The headband, which he started wearing during his junior year of high school, is a reminder to not to let his emotions got the best of him.

"I was an angry guy always getting technical fouls, just a wild child on the court," Portis said. "Hard fouls and getting kicked out of games. I wanted to move from that."

Arkansas needed him to turn the corner, too. In many ways, he was groomed to be the star player the Razorbacks have needed for years.

Portis is from Little Rock. He played AAU basketball for two-time Arkansas All-American Corliss Williamson. And fourth-year coach Mike Anderson was an assistant for Arkansas when Williamson starred for the great Hogs teams of the ‘90s.

That Portis was the first McDonald's All-American from Arkansas to sign with Arkansas since Williamson was essentially a guarantee.

"I grew up always liking the Razorbacks," Portis said. "I'd go to (Williamson's) house and he'd always have Razorback gear and it made me want to be a Razorback more."

If not for that connection with Williamson, maybe Portis wouldn't have looked on Arkansas quite as fondly.

The best moments of Arkansas basketball occurred when Portis was still in diapers, if that. Portis was born weeks before the Razorbacks reached their last Final Four in 1995. He hadn't been born when Arkansas won the only national championship in school history in 1994.

For most of Portis' life, Arkansas has been a largely mediocre program. For those who remember, 40 Minutes of Hell the two-decade malaise has been shocking. Arkansas hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008 and hasn't reached the Sweet 16 since 1996. Arkansas won as many NCAA Tournament games when Portis was an infant than in the 19 years since.

Yet there wasn't any doubt he'd play for Arkansas.

"When I got the job, he was in his junior year and he committed to me right on the spot," Anderson said. "It was a big statement."

Portis averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a freshman and blossomed as a sophomore. He's shooting 57.3 percent from 2-point range, compared to 53.7 percent a year ago. He's making more shots and he's turning the ball over less.

Will that translate into rare NCAA Tournament wins for Arkansas? That remains to be seen, but the Razorbacks already won their first SEC tournament game since 2008.

"He's the face of our program," Anderson said. "That's big for a 20-year-old."